"Perspectives", a monthly column authored by
Todd Grimm for "Time-Compression Technologies."
This column was published in the
January/February 2006 issue. For more great articles,
visit the "Time-Compression Technologies'"
Web site at www.timecompress.com.
Rapid Manufacturing-Near-term Solution or Future Promise?
Rapid manufacturing will change the way business is done, but it will not happen tomorrow. Manufacturers must plan for the future, act for today, and remember the past.
With all of the buzz about rapid manufacturing ,it would seem that this intriguing concept has become a reality. Granted, it is exciting, innovative, and newsworthy. Rapid manufacturing holds the promise of fundamentally changing the business practices of manufacturers in industries as diverse as medical devices and aerospace.
But, is it really practical today? Is rapid manufacturing a methodology that is realistic for many companies and products, or is it a concept that has merit for the very few?
Contrary to the hype, I believe that rapid manufacturing is a distant promise for most companies. It will be years, if not a decade or more, before a diverse range of businesses rely on rapid manufacturing as a standard methodology for the production of their commercial goods. I believe that it will be at least 10 years before rapid manufacturing becomes more than a niche application.
Yet, as rapid manufacturing is developing and maturing, it can be a viable solution. It can be used today when a company produces custom or low-volume products; when a company is innovative and aggressive; or when the scope of manufactured goods is expanded to include end use items that go beyond sellable products.
Rapid manufacturing will change the way business is done, but it will not happen tomorrow. So, manufacturers must plan for the future, act for today, and remember the past.
Past Predicts the Future
In the early days of rapid prototyping, there were claims of exponential growth in just a few years. As with rapid manufacturing, there was a lot of media coverage on this exciting and innovative technological development. Yet, nearly two decades later, rapid prototyping' predicted growth has not been realized, and the majority of design professionals have yet to adopt it as a standard tool in the product development process.
If rapid prototyping has yet to conquer the design world, why would we believe that rapid manufacturing will sweep through industry in less time? If everything were equal, rapid manufacturing should follow a similar growth curve. But, everything is not equal. Rapid manufacturing faces greater challenges and obstacles that rapid prototyping.
The demands on manufacturing are significantly greater than those of prototyping. If a prototype fails, there may be delays, but another can made with little impact on the business. On the other hand, if a product or one of its components fails, the impact can be devastating. Manufacturing products with additive technologies carry far greater risk than that of prototyping them, and this will hinder the adoption of rapid manufacturing.
Rapid prototyping impacts the day-to-day operations of relatively few individuals, and changes to business processes are minor. Rapid manufacturing, on the other hand, requires the acceptance and support of many manufacturing functions, and the people that perform these duties have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Changing prototyping processes affects designers, engineers, and model shop personnel. Changing manufacturing processes affects all manufacturing and quality control personnel. Any consideration of rapid manufacturing will be threatening, and this will yield significant resistance to its implementation.
Beyond creating 3-dimensional CAD data, rapid prototyping demands no change to the physical design of the component. When replacing one manufacturing method with another, there is usually, if not always, a requirement to alter the design specifications to fit the manufacturing process and the properties of the output. These process-imposed design changes will be required when shifting from traditional manufacturing methods to rapid manufacturing. Companies cannot shift a die cast or injection molded part to rapid manufacturing without changing the component's design.
However, the body of science and fields of study that offer information on design requirements are just emerging. Few people in education and industry know how a rapid manufactured component will differ from its conventional counterpart. Without science, investigation, and hands-on experience, it is difficult to redesign apart for rapid manufacturing with any degree of confidence that it will work throughout the product's life.
To overcome its limitations and to realize the full extent of the benefits of rapid manufacturing, industry needs to be taught how to design for the process. While there is active research in this area, there is still much work to do. And, the results of the research need to be passed on to students and practitioners of the manufacturing arts.
We are in the pioneering days of rapid manufacturing. The future holds great promise, but there is much work to be done, there are obstacles to overcome, and there are mindsets to change. These efforts will take years to complete.
Rapid Manufacturing Today
While there are plenty of reasons to believe that rapid manufacturing is a promise of the future, it can be a practical solution that is applicable today. There are circumstances where the benefits and opportunities outweigh the limitations and risks. While these conditions exist in only a small percentage of all manufacturing activity, there are situations where rapid manufacturing is an ideal solution. To recognize the opportunities, manufacturers must keep an open mind to the practicality of rapid manufacturing.
Custom Products and Innovation
A fundamental condition for rapid manufacturing is the production of low part quantities. Ideally, low quantity means one off, customized products, but there are also cases where standardized products can benefit from rapid manufacturing. Hearing aids,the oft-cited example of rapid manufacturing success, are an example of products that must be custom-made for each customer. The custom nature of in-the-ear hearing aids opened the door for rapid manufacturing. Seeking a better way to produce the hearing aid shells, these manufacturers made rapid manufacturing work for them.
The implementation of rapid manufacturing has been so successful that it has revolutionized the hearing aid industry. However, it was not an overnight success. The hearing aid companies have been evaluating rapid prototyping technologies for manufacturing applications for more than 10 years. Spurred on by innovation, they worked diligently to make the process suitable for their needs.
Custom-made products and a spirit of innovation are two elements found in many successful rapid manufacturing implementations. If these qualities depict your company, keep your eyes open for opportunities. Yet, if this does not describe your company, you should still continue to keep an open mind to rapid manufacturing.
Low-volume Production and Necessity
Some companies with standard products and a conservative approach have found that rapid manufacturing can work for low volume production or as a bridge to production. The often cited examples in aerospace fit this description. Fighter aircraft and space vehicles are outfitted with components produced through rapid manufacturing.
What is most interesting is that one aerospace company adopted rapid manufacturing because it had to. Faced with commitments and deadlines, this company found that it could not deliver on its commitments with conventional manufacturing processes. According to a company executive, the aerospace manufacturer had to try rapid manufacturing out of necessity. While the risk was high, the only other option was certain failure. This company had to make rapid manufacturing work.
Necessity, the mother of invention, may be the catalyst for your company to try rapid manufacturing. The other catalyst may be the opportunity to try rapid manufacturing with little, if any, risk.
Consumables Without Risk
Manufacturing is not limited to the production of sellable goods. Manufactured goods also include countless items that are used in the manufacturing process. Fixtures, jigs, gages, hand tools, and machine components are often needed in small quantities. When the scope of manufacturing is expanded to include these items, rapid manufacturing becomes viable for nearly every company. Unlike the commercial products, these items, which are consumed by the manufacturer, present only marginal risk when attempting to make them with additive technologies.
The Future of Rapid Manufacturing For now, rapid manufacturing is limited to low-quantity production where innovation, necessity, or opportunity overshadow the risk. In the short term, rapid manufacturing will be a tool for the minority of businesses. However, sometime in the future, rapid manufacturing will change the way business is done.
It will be a decade or more, but the future will arrive. When it does, rapid manufacturing will change the way industry makes products. Plan for this future and act for today.
For more information, please contact Todd Grimm, Grimm and Associates, Inc. (Edgewood, KY) at (859) 331-5340 or email at email@example.com, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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